James Lawton: Traditional values laid to rest in next stage of Russian revolution
Friday 13 June 2008
Who can resist the sight of a wild but infinitely funded poker player relentlessly raising the stakes? It may not be good poker, indeed not even what the game is supposed to be about, but when you see a man drunk on something other than alcohol, and especially if it is his own power, you are bound to take a look.
But then how long is it before nausea sets in and you conclude that his game can no longer be your game? This, surely, is how it is with the lust to win of the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich as he buys Luiz Felipe Scolari, long regarded as big-time football's most independent minded coach, and hands him £100m to strengthen the side that wasn't quite good enough to win the greatest prize in the club game, the European Champions League, in Moscow last month.
Yes, we find this compelling. But are we not also at least a little revolted by the evidence that Abramovich, who had so craved success at the Luzhniki Stadium in the city where he acquired so much of the mineral wealth of a vast and still largely impoverished nation, brought back to his London mansion just one lesson from defeat in Moscow?
It was, this week's events make clear, one that tells him that if at first you don't succeed, and even if the ultimate failure stretches into five seasons of overwhelming financial advantage, you must simply buy, buy and buy again.
Chelsea fans will of course not complain. When Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge they were no more uncomfortable with the source of their new wealth than those of Manchester City, another of England's classic, muddling but much-loved clubs, when Thaksin Shinawatra fetched up at the City of Manchester stadium with, unusually, both a military junta and human rights organisations at his heels.
Neither set of supporters will agonise over the ethics of buying success as just another commodity available only to the very rich. This will not lessen their thrill at, say, seeing Ronaldinho in east Manchester or the sublime Kaka in west London, but even for those of us who also revel in such quality, there will no doubt be another reaction.
If everything is for sale, if Kaka can be plucked away from his San Siro theatre as a welcome gift to Scolari, and if your tentacles appear to be so all-pervasive the idea that sooner or later even the talent of the new manager's superstar in the current European Championship finals, Cristiano Ronaldo, might finish up at the Bridge is regarded by some as not completely outlandish, what is the point of nourishing old hopes and loyalties?
There is one, of course, and though Manchester United may not be the most convincing representatives of the old football proletariat, it was possible to feel a frisson of it in Moscow when Abramovich, who had brought his equivalent of a toy train home to show his friends, had to watch sullenly as the wheels fell off.
United, obviously, also operate on the basis of riches but it is tricky and controversial wealth fraught with a degree of risk and it can only be maintained by the continued competitive brilliance of Sir Alex Ferguson. It does not gush up endlessly, warm and sticky, from the permafrost of Mother Russia.
Chelsea are different to United and Arsenal – for whom a glorious opportunity to restate some old values slipped away at the end of a season in which they had produced some football so exquisite even Abramovich would have been stretched to make a realistic bid for its transfer to Stamford Bridge – in that their spending is not so much strategic as automatic.
This isn't building a club, it is football's equivalent of a scorched earth policy. You don't have to be romantic to despise it. You just have to remember what competitive football is supposed to be about. Of course there have always been imbalances of power and wealth and there is not much that can be done about this. Certainly there is no point in suggesting the equivalent of the American draft system, which has always been based on the belief that in the long term a league will only be as strong as its weakest link. You have to suspect that more than a few samovars would have to be boiled before Abramovich, whose chief executive, Peter Kenyon, once proudly boasted that the Premier League was a race involving a "bunch of one", understood the point let alone accepted it.
Yet, of course, there will always be the fault line that United were able to exploit in Moscow. The bunch of one are still short of the European mountain top despite the investment of the best part of a billion pounds and while the talk is of Kaka such highly functional figures as Frank Lampard and Ricardo Carvalho may well decide they have had their fill of both Abromvich's largesse and his tragic-comic idea of how to run a football club so far from classically successful lines.
There is an even more basic question. Will Scolari do any better than Jose Mourinho in maintaining his strong man image under the weight of financial obligation which is reliably reported to be set at more than £6m per year? The Special One wasn't so special when he weighed his assessment of himself against the risk of breaking a contract that guaranteed his family's financial future. It is also reported that Scolari has agreed to "discuss" team matters and transfer policy with the owner in return for pay which he would have regarded as a fantasy in any of his highly successful stints in club football in Brazil, his World Cup-winning spell with the national team, and his current success in giving Portuguese football its highest profile since the days of Eusebio and Mario Coluna.
There is no question about the weight of Scolari's record, though some would argue that it was inflated by the ineptitude of Sven Goran Eriksson's leadership when Brazil faced England in the World Cup quarter-final of 2002 – and that the Swede was again the last word in passivity when Scolari led Portugual to quarter-final wins in the 2004 European Championship and the last World Cup.
What the debate is now is how much of Scolari's integrity can be preserved against the background of a club which has the price of anything in football except common sense.
The narrow one, that is. The wider one will continue to concern the effect of Abramovich's ever-escalating attempt to buy himself a European Cup on anyone already assailed by the belief that in football everyone and everything has come to have a price. Some mocked Arsène Wenger last summer when he said that he believed there was still a power in football greater than the chequebook, and no doubt they felt vindicated when Arsenal fell away before the finishing line was reached.
But vindicated in what? Only, maybe, the confirmation that football, like everything else, in the end will fall in line with the highest bidder. This, from the start, has been the belief of Abramovich and this week he played his strongest cards.
Perhaps they should have provoked the sharpest intake of breath and maybe they would have done, back when we thought football was still a branch of sport.
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